Homophobic crime: unspoken scourge within Britain's prisons

Investigation lays bare violent abuse and exposes the taboo that reformers have still not addressed

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Homophobic crime is endemic in Britain's prisons, but often ignored by the authorities, according to an investigation that has revealed allegations of verbal, physical and sexual assaults.

The report by the Howard League for Penal Reform shines a light on the last taboo in Britain's prison system, and the fact that homophobic incidents are not nationally monitored. The targeting of gay men for sexual favours is also widespread, according to victims who say they are too scared to report abuse in case they are mocked or ignored by staff.

The Howard League found that sending prisoners to vulnerable persons' units for their "own protection", along with child abusers and informants, fuelled dangerous, false stereotypes about homosexuality. One bisexual man told the League: "I've been put in segregation and slashed down my back with a razor. They say if I go into the shower they will beat me up and some ask for sexual favours. We can't report it, as we're then labelled as a grass and that leads to abuse."

The research comes as the prison service takes steps to stamp out hate crimes related to race, religion and disability to comply with equality laws that come into force next April.

The Howard League found some examples of good local practice and individual prison officers who tried to ensure that all vulnerable prisoners were protected from discrimination. But inspectors this year highlighted the lack of policies and support available to protect gay and bisexual inmates at several prisons. The Warren Hill young offenders' institute in Suffolk, Wayland category C prison in Norfolk, and Askham Grange women's prison in Yorkshire are among those that must urgently improve support for gay inmates, according to Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League, said an unofficial "don't ask, don't tell" policy made it impossible to establish the true extent of homophobic assaults. "Anecdotally, we know there is endemic homophobia directed at gay prisoners from staff and other inmates," she said. "We have been told that the weak and vulnerable are targeted for the purchase of sexual favours or [their] exchange for canteen items, drugs or protection. The charity has been told that gay prisoners are advised by officers to 'act less gay' as a survival strategy."

The prison population is 88,115 in England and Wales, with 5,000 gay and bisexual inmates, charity Stonewall estimates.

Case study: 'They don't know who they can trust, so they don't tell anyone'

I have been openly gay for 13 years and throughout my time [in prison] there were sexually explicit comments and taunts. I could handle it, but there were guys who became totally isolated and terrified.

"Others wouldn't admit to being gay in case they got beaten up. People get physically and sexually violated in their cells when the doors are unlocked. Many fear that reporting things to staff will make them even more vulnerable. They don't know who they can trust, so they don't tell anyone."

Arto Maatta, 34, from London, spent four months in three prisons after stealing to fund a club-scene drug habit. He now works for the St Giles Trust, a charity that works with former offenders, and has set up projects to support gay, bisexual and transgender inmates.